#285) The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)


#285) The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Directed & Written by Winsor McCay

Class of 2017

But first – an Oversimplified History Lesson: World War I had been going on for less than a year in Europe when Germany announced that their U-boat invasion of Allied vessels would now include passenger ships. On May 7th 1915, a German U-boat fired a torpedo at the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, a British ship returning from a trip to New York City. The ship sank off the coast of Ireland, with 1198 killed, including 128 Americans. Although it would be another 2 ½ years before America officially entered the war, this event did start to turn public opinion away from neutrality. Among those opposed to American involvement was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who forced his newspapers to downplay the sinking and to create anti-war editorial cartoons. This did not sit well with one of his cartoonists, Winsor McCay, who spent two years of his own time and money to make “The Sinking of the Lusitania”.

The Plot: After a brief prologue highlighting the manpower required by Winsor McCay to make this film (including 25,000 individual drawings), “The Sinking of the Lusitania” is an animated recreation of the tragic event. Through painstakingly detailed animation, and with no newsreel footage or photographs to use as reference, McCay and his team show the torpedoes hitting the Lusitania, the ensuing explosions, and the innocent passengers abandoning ship and drowning, all while reminding you that the Germans are the real enemy and that America must take action.

Why It Matters: The NFR chalks this film up to historical significance, calling it “a notable early example of animation being used for a purpose other than comedy.” The write-up also devotes space to a quote from film expert William K. Everson, who calls the film “a fascinating and seldom-repeated experiment.”

But Does It Really?: A historical yes. The animation has a very surreal quality that makes for a tantalizing viewing experience, and the historical significance helps push it over into the “preservation-worthy” category. Like a lot of people with multiple films on the Registry, “Sinking” isn’t the most essential Winsor McCay film, but it is a must-watch for anyone interested in his work.

Shout Outs: None, which is surprising considering how much Winsor McCay liked to toot his own horn. Perhaps he didn’t want his passion project to be associated with Gertie or Little Nemo.

Everybody Gets One: I’ll give a shoutout to August F. Beach. He was the first reporter at the actual sinking, and shared his recollections with McCay. If this film had any actual credits I’m sure he’d be listed as a “historical consultant” or something.

Wow, That’s Dated: The last intertitle refers to the “Hun”, the slang term for Germans used during the war. It’s a not-favorable comparison to Attila.

Other notes

  • From what I can gather, “Sinking” premiered in the summer of 1918. The German armistice that ended the war was signed in November of that year, so this was one of the final bits of propaganda for the war effort.
  • A “Moving Pen Picture”? Surely the word “animated” existed back then.
  • McCay loves his stats. He is more than happy to tell you how much work he put into any of these shorts.
  • This is the first of the McCay shorts to rely on a background layer with celluloid animation (cels) placed over. Prior to this, McCay had the background drawn with the main action for each individual frame. Cartoonist Earl Hurd created animation cels in 1914, and it quickly became the industry norm.
  • Let the record show that although there were two explosions aboard the Lusitania, only one torpedo hit the ship. McCay added the second torpedo for this film. Historians still aren’t sure what exactly caused the second explosion.
  • The short also features an “In Memoriam”-type section for notable figures that were lost on the Lusitania. Most notable among them, Broadway producer Charles Froham, whose last words were allegedly “Death is but a beautiful adventure of life”, a paraphrase of a line from one his biggest hits: a stage production of “Peter Pan”.


  • As you can imagine, Hearst was not happy that McCay was devoting more time to his animation than his newspaper cartoons, and shortly after the release of “Lusitania” forced McCay to give up animation. McCay relented, and a groundbreaking film career was over.

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